Thought for the day
Official memorial celebrations are familiar to us, marking wars or national events. Often, these are coloured by a mixture of sadness and gratitude. The Christian memorial of the last week of Jesus’ life is entirely different. First of all, we tell the whole story again because he is risen from the dead. Secondly, this memorial is an effective one: as we do this in memory of him, the very same gifts of compassion, forgiveness, love and healing are offered again to all present, precisely because Jesus is risen from the dead. Our Christian memory is not a dead remembering but an effective bringing into the present of the great events that gave us new life in Christ.
Saving God, as we recall in word and gesture the great events of salvation, let us know your healing love once more. Amen.
The Crucifixion of Jesus
Matthew 27:32 As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; 36 then they sat down there and kept watch over him. 37 Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
Matthew 27:38 Then two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 39 Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to, for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” 44 The rebels who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.
The Death of Jesus
Matthew 27:45 From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 48 At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Matthew 27:55 Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him. 56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
The Burial of Jesus
Matthew 27:57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who also was himself a disciple of Jesus.
There is a core similarity between the four accounts of the death of Jesus in the New Testament. However, they differ in sequence and in details, allowing various understandings of the cross to unfold. Thus both Mark and Matthew treat the death as tragedy, the tragic outcome of the ministry of Jesus, rejected by his people and abandoned by his followers. Luke, in contrast, treats the death of Jesus as that of a martyr-prophet, on the model of Old Testament prophets, who suffered for the their preaching and in anticipation of the death of Stephen in the Acts (by Luke also). In the Fourth Gospel, the portrayal is that of a triumph, which brings together the lifting up, the hour and the glorification of Jesus. Because the death of Jesus was and is such a deeply mysterious and indeed perplexing event, different dimensions are explored and laid bare by different New Testament writers, the earliest being Paul.
Kind of writing
The scenes recounted belong to the genre of biography, dealing with the tragic end of Jesus’ ministry. Using narrative “adjustments”, it offers its own interpretation.
Old Testament background
(i) In all the accounts, there is an underlay of reference to the Psalms and the Prophets. By delving into the Hebrew Bible, the first generation of Christians hoped to understand what had happened on the cross as somehow in continuity with God’s earlier word. Ps 22, in italics below, is especially rich in resonance.
Ps 69:21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. Ps 22:18 they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots. Ps 22:7 All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 109:25 I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they shake their heads. Lam. 2:15 All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at daughter Jerusalem; “Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth?” Ps 22:8 “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!” Wis. 2:18 for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. 19 Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. 20 Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” Amos 8:9 On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. Ps 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Ps 69:21 They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink. Ezek. 37:12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Deut. 21:22 When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.
(ii) An especially rich resource for early Christian reflection were the Suffering Servant Songs in Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9 and 52:13-53:12). In the historical context the Servant is, perhaps, Israel. The early Christians saw here passages which helped them come to grips with the crucifixion. The links are as follows:
First Song: Is 42:1-4; Mt 12:18.
Second Song: Is 49:1-6: Mt 12:18.
Third Song: Is 50:4-9; Mt 5:39
Fourth Song: Is 52:13-53:12. See below for the detailed reference.
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. (Isa 53:4 = Mt 8:17)
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. (Isa 53:7 = Mt 26:63)
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa 53:10–12 = Mt 20:28; for v. 12 see all Mt 26:28, 27:38)
New Testament foreground
i) The Passion Predictions help us see the theology of the writer and, perhaps, something of the understanding of Jesus himself: Matt 16:21; 17:22; 20:17-19.
(ii) The words at the Supper also interpret the death: Matt 26:26-29.
(iii) Earthquakes are introduced to indicate God’s presence and action.
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1Corinthians 11:26)
Verse 32 Simon, a historical figure, here models authentic discipleship: Matt 10:37-39; 16:24-28.
Verse 37 Cruelly ironic in the light of the rejection at 27:25.
Verse 39 A combination of the important temple saying with the temptations at the beginning of the ministry. Jesus confronts evil as such.
Verse 45 Symbolic darkness, signalling that the cross is an end-time event.
Verse 46 The first words of Ps 22, placing the death of Jesus in the context of a psalm of lament, which itself returns at the end to deep confidence in God.
Verse 47 Elijah was expected at the end (Mal 4:5); his mention tells us that something to do with the God’s final, end-time purpose is unfolding here.
Verse 50 The actual death is a wordless cry.
Verses 51f. The curtain stands for the mother religion of Judaism, represented by the curtain which veiled God’s presence. The earthquake is symbolic. Matt, Lk and Jn bring the consequences of the death forward, in a symbolic way.
Verse 54 A profound Gentile confession, matching Peter’s at 16:13ff.
Verse 55 The women at a distance contrast with the women John 19. Some of them will be witness to the resurrection (see v.61).
Verse 57 Probably a historical recollection; the burial is dignified and matter-of-fact.
Pointers for prayer
The account of the Passion is a vivid story with a variety of characters and much action. To enter into the passage we can read the story slowly and see if we can identify with different characters in the story. Also any one scene within the story can provide us with much food for reflection and prayer. Keep in mind that one of the aims in reflecting on the passage is to discover the GOOD NEWS the story has for us. Here are just a few general pointers for prayer.
1. The identity of Jesus is revealed as the Messiah and the Son of God, not with a display of human power, but as one who was prepared to suffer unto death to show us how our God loves us. How does the Passion story speak to you as a revelation of how God loves you?
2. Jesus gives us an example of patient endurance and faithfulness in suffering. Suffering is something we all encounter. It is not something that anyone likes but sometimes we cope with it better than others. What have you found helps you to cope better with suffering?
3. As you read through the narrative of the Passion where do you find yourself resonating with a character in the action? Is there any message there for you that is life-giving?
O God of eternal glory, you anointed Jesus your servant to bear our sins, to encourage the weary, to raise up and restore the fallen. Keep before our eyes the splendour of the paschal mystery of Christ and, by our sharing in the passion and resurrection, seal our lives with the victorious sign of his obedience and exaltation.
We ask this through Christ, our liberator from sin, who lives with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God for ever and ever. Amen.